The Fall of the Low Hanging Fruit

On Monday, October 30, 2017, Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The two men face a total of 12 charges mostly focused on alleged money laundering, failure to disclose financial assets, and false statements regarding their work for the Ukrainian government and a Ukrainian political party. Particularly, it’s about how Manafort and Gates hid their lobbying work for the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party and used elaborate schemes to funnel more than $75 million through offshore accounts to conceal their activities and avoid paying taxes on the proceeds. Manafort’s history of pro-Russian consulting work and experience with international skullduggery make him a prime suspect for potential collusion. But the indictment actually doesn’t have anything to do with possible Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether Trump associates played any role in it. Instead, it’s almost entirely related to Manafort’s work for foreign interests predating the 2016 campaign which were already under FBI investigation. For months Mueller seemed to have zeroing in on Manafort. In July, the FBI raided his house for documents and there was a report he’d been wiretapped. Emails then revealed he tried to set up private briefings for a Russian billionaire while Trump’s campaign chair. It’s long been speculated that if Mueller’s team finds damaging evidence, they’re reportedly hoping they can use charges to get Manafort to give them more information on the collusion matter. In other words, they want to flip him against Trump, other Trump associates, or potentially Russians.

Paul Manafort has had a decades long career as a Republican operative and lobbyist who’s worked on several GOP presidential campaigns and representing several controversial dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s also been a longtime business partner of Roger Stone, with whom he founded a famous lobbying firm. In the mid-2000s, Manafort began focusing on business activities in Eastern Europe. Initially, he mostly advised oligarchs such as Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska and Ukrainian steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov. In 2005, he advised the Ukrainian pro-Russian Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych. After Yanukovych lost a presidential election, Manafort’s team helped them formulate a comeback strategy. In 2010, Yanukovych won Ukraine’s presidency. Manafort had other dealings with wealthy people in Ukraine as well. In one instance, he tried to develop a luxury apartment with energy oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was later charged with money laundering and bribery. Yet, these business ventures fall apart in 2014. Protests and clashes with pro-Russian policies forced President Yanukovych to flee Ukraine. Meanwhile, Manafort had a large falling out with Deripaska who claimed he cheated him out of millions in a lawsuit.
So why would Donald Trump appoint an operative who’s done so much pro-Putin work as his campaign chair? Well, consider the situation in March 2016. Back then, despite Trump winning several flashy victories in early primary elections. But Ted Cruz proved adept at locking down delegates even in states Trump won. Since delegates technically determine the nominee, Trump became convinced he needed an expert who understood the byzantine party rules actually governing delegate selection and the convention, else he could lose. Since Manafort had helped Gerald Ford lock down delegates in 1976 and managed Bob Dole’s convention 20 years later, he fit the bill. Even better, Manafort was also the former business partner of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. Though Stone had been pushed out of the Trump campaign some time ago, he kept informally advising Trump and to intrigue against campaign manager Corey Lewandowski whom he loathed. At first, Manafort’s job was merely leading a delegate wrangling operation. But when Lewandowski became enmeshed in scandal over grabbing Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a campaign event, his portfolio gradually expanded until he was effectively running the campaign. In May 2016, he was officially made campaign chair and chief strategist while Lewandowski was fired. Manafort would remain in charge through the last through GOP primary elections and the Republican National Convention. By mid-August Trump had sunk in the polls while damaging news reports about foreign worked dogged Manafort. Thus, Trump brought in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to take over while Manafort had to resign. Of course, the Trump administration has recently attempted to distance itself from the former campaign chairman with then Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming, he “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” However, it widely understood that Manafort was a linchpin in the Trump campaign. As New Gingrich told Fox News in August 2016, “Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this [Trump] campaign to where it is right now.”

Paul Manafort’s time with the Trump campaign may have lasted less than 5 months but it was an eventful and crucial period for Trump/Russian activity. For one, the Trump campaign transitioned from the primary to the general election in which finding a way to defeat Hillary Clinton would be top priority. Second, there’s the e-mail exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone who offered to set up a meeting in which he’d receive incriminating information on Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. forwarded the e-mail thread about the meeting to Manafort and Jared Kushner and invited them to it. That meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and potential spy Rinat Akhmetshin took place on June 9, 2016 with Manafort and Kushner in attendance. Though the parties involved claimed the meeting lead nowhere, NBC News states that Manafort’s notes on the meeting included a reference to donations, “near a reference to the Republican National Convention” though the full context remains unclear. In July, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention. But as the Republicans assembled their platform some controversy spilled over whether Trump staffers pushed to dilute an aggressive anti-Russian amendment calling for arming Ukraine. The controversy seems somewhat exaggerated and there hasn’t been any indication that Manafort was personally involved. The existing platform wasn’t changed but a Ted Cruz supporter’s proposed amendment was modified before being added to it. Later in that same month, Wikileaks posted hundreds of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee. The dumps showed certain DNC staffers saying unfriendly things about Bernie Sanders were perfectly timed to cause chaos at the Democratic National Convention the following week. US intelligence later claimed the Russian government orchestrated the DNC hack.
Nevertheless, Mueller’s indictment of Manafort was a long time coming. Even before the indictment, Manafort was already seen as astonishingly corrupt with longstanding interests in tilting the Trump campaign’s platform in a pro-Russian stance. The gist of the 12 charges against him and Gates is that they “acted as unregistered agents” of the Ukrainian government and politicians, generating “tens of millions of dollars in income” which they then “laundered” through “score of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.” In other words, taking a bunch of illegal Ukrainian money and actively lying about it to the federal government which is a criminal offense. On former front, Manafort and Gates are both charged with a “conspiracy to launder money” and separate specific charges on failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts. Together to hide their Ukrainian work, both men laundered their Ukrainian payments through a complex network of companies and bank accounts they set up in both the United States and abroad which included tax havens in Cyprus, Saint Vincent and the Grendines, and Seychelles. More than $75 million is said to flow through their offshore bank accounts. The indictment then reads: “Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income.” It then alleges that Manafort laundered over $18 million through offshore accounts, making various payments to businesses including a home improvement company, a men’s clothing store, a landscaper, and an antique rug store. In 2012, he’s said to buy a Manhattan condo for $2.85 million he rented out using Airbnb to generate cash.

Thus, it’s obvious that Mueller wants to know whether there was any follow-up to the meeting Trump Jr. set up (despite Trump Jr. claiming there wasn’t). And whether Manafort had any knowledge about the email hackings which he’s denied. There are also questions about Manafort’s emails with his Ukrainian business associate Konstantin Kilimnik about his old client Oleg Deripaska. On July 7, 2016, he e-mailed Kilimnik about the Russian aluminum oligarch saying, “If he needs private briefings we can accommodate” according to the Washington Post. Kilimnik wrote back a few weeks later, seemingly cryptically about Deripaska, claiming he met the guy in person “who gave you the biggest black caviar jar several years ago” and that it would take time to explain this “long caviar story.” He and Manafort then set up a meeting in New York that took place a few days later. By the way, he did this while chairing Trump’s campaign. And even though his Ukrainian baggage forced him to leave the Trump campaign, Manafort was known to be in contact with Trump. Mostly because investigators had been surveilling him thanks to a secret court order since September 2016.

As Mueller’s main goal is to investigate potential collusion between Trump associates and Russia, he can see charges against Manafort as a means to an end. The stronger the evidence the special counsel has against the former Trump campaign manager, the more pressure he can exert to get him to cooperate in the collusion probe. But the charges are serious enough to warrant prison time that Manafort and Gates turned themselves in to the FBI to face those charges. Thus, the men turned themselves in. Then there’s the foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos who’s plead guilty of lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Joseph Mifsud, a professor with close ties to the Russian government who told him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails.” Such disclosure confirms at least one Trump campaign adviser knew of Kremlin efforts to help Trump win the White House and was open to accepting that assistance. But whether Papadopoulos shared that information with others within the Trump campaign remains a mystery. Yet, Mueller’s team has said in a court filing that Papadopoulos “has indicated that he is willing to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.” This begs the question what kinds of information Papadopoulos has already provided to Mueller’s team. Did he wear a wire? Did he try to help the special prosecutor gather information on other Trump associates? Are other Trump team members quietly working with Mueller? Nonetheless, Mueller’s moves increase the likelihood that campaign advisers or administration staffers finding themselves in his crosshairs might want to strike plea bargains in which they trade damaging information on Trump in exchange for lesser charges. This who don’t cut a deal will be prosecuted.

Though the investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia has simmered for months, it’s wasn’t clear if, or when, it would move from a political scandal to a legal one. Thanks to Mueller’s indictments on Manafort and Gates, it has. Now the question is how far Trump will go to protect himself from an investigation that threatens the future of his presidency. And whether the Congress and the courts will be up for the challenge. The time may come when Donald Trump decides he has no choice but try to protect himself by firing Mueller or issuing preemptive pardons to Manafort or others ensnared in the investigation. Either move can trigger a legal and political crisis in Watergate level proportions such as breaking decades of if not centuries of precedent for how American presidents treat the criminal justice system. Federal courts may have to decide whether to overturn any Trump pardons. Republicans could face a moment of truth about their willingness to actually stand up to Trump instead of publicly bashing him. Though a handful of GOP lawmakers have introduced legislation designed to protect Mueller from Trump firing him with bipartisan support. But such legislation has gone nowhere. So far, Robert Mueller has the upper hand but that could very literally change at a moment depending on what Trump does next. The US political and legal systems did their jobs during Watergate. But it’s profoundly depressing to ask whether they’ll do their jobs during the Trump presidency. It’s even more heart wrenching they might not.

So far the Republican Party has done nothing. Earlier in October, House Speaker Paul Ryan reputedly joked at the Al Smith Dinner, “Every morning I wake up in my office and I scroll through Twitter to see which tweets I will have to pretend I didn’t see later on.” Later, when a Wisconsin radio station asked his opinion on the Mueller indictments, he said, “I really don’t have anything to add other than nothing is going to derail what we’re doing in Congress.” There was nothing on his website even addressing the indictments. But there was a post summing up a busy month cheekily titled, “Not Another Tax Reform Post” and included photos of Ryan signing bills, handing out medals, and meeting interns. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t even make himself available enough to dodge any questions. The top story on his website that time was “McConnell on IRS Targeting During Obama Administration.” There is no mention of Mueller whatsoever. Had Hillary Clinton been in this situation you’d bet Ryan and McConnell would be all over it. Instead, they’re mounting a defense of Congress’s priorities in the face of Trump and the media’s distractions. Yet, these near-daily acts of silence and cowardice abdicate Congress’s role to contain a clearly rogue, lawless, and undisciplined White House. The Founding Fathers could see Americans electing a demagogue to the White House to the White House despite that their mistrust of the popular will and Electoral College system enabled just that. But instead of ambition counteracting ambition as they intended, it’s ambition enabling ambition which wasn’t what the Founding Fathers had foreseen. Today, Ryan and McConnell’s ambition to pass tax cuts for the rich and hold the Republican base is enabling Trump’s ambition to act without proper sanction or oversight. Congress has plenty of power to check Trump, but its leaders are too nervous to use it, or even signal that they might use it in the future.

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell could’ve said or done so much to protect both the process and the country. They could’ve remarked how troubling Mueller’s indictments are for anyone caring about the sanctity of elections. They could’ve assured that Mueller had their full support for the investigation to run its course as well as endorse one of the bipartisan bills to safeguard his job. Even if it just in the name of self-preservation. Because Donald Trump firing Mueller will ignite a major political crisis that will be far more of a distraction from tax reform. But the GOP has come to bind and blind so effectively that congressional Republicans have lost sight that they, too, have an interest in the political system’s fundamental stability and indicating what behavior will or will not be acceptable from the president. And it’s not Ryan and McConnell who could act to safeguard Mueller’s investigation in advance. Senators John McCain, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake have all decried Donald Trump as a threat in apocalyptic terms. They can join the Democrats to create a 51-vote majority blocking action on any bills until the protective legislation Republican Senator Tom Tillis introduced was passed. But so far, they too, have done nothing of the kind.

The Trump era is an extraordinary time in American politics that’s a test not just to our institutions but also our leaders. Republicans are failing that test. It’s well known they’re more despairing than liberals in the back rooms and background briefings. They know that Donald Trump is a dangerous and impulsive man in the White House. Those who take their conservatism seriously and believe the best for their party keenly feel the consequences of Trump’s behavior. But because they’re so afraid of his wrath, confused by their base, and somewhat hopeful that something good can arise from this crisis, they regularly talk themselves into small acts of cowardice and silence. Yet, these small acts lead to committing larger ones when the party is too invested and too culpable to change. Now like hungry gamblers deep in a losing streak, they need to win something to justify all they’ve done and excused. But like all hungry gamblers, more likely than not, they’ll just keep losing while making everything worse for themselves and the American people. For the sake of the country, Republicans need to start taking Trump as a serious threat now.

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